Better Than Words With Friends

Draw Something, the amazingly addictive guess-my-sketch game.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

It’s been four days since the FedEx guy dropped off my new iPad—four days during which I wanted to put the device through its paces and write up a comprehensive review. Well, that didn’t happen. I wish I could tell you about the iPad’s battery life, whether its processor delivers better performance, and how 4G networking improves its portability. But other than a few minutes spent browsing the Web, I barely touched most of the new iPad’s features.

Instead, like millions of other people, I went to the iPad’s App Store and downloaded the game Draw Something. And that was all she wrote: All weekend, my wife and I passed the iPad back and forth, drawing silly pictures for friends and strangers and trying to guess what other people were drawing.

Draw Something, which is available for both Apple and Android devices, sounds simple and, in some ways, unoriginal. It wasn’t the first drawing game online, and it stands on the shoulders of Pictionary and Win, Lose or Draw. But its apparent unsophistication is a feature, not a bug. Draw Something’s simple user interface and game mechanics are what make it irresistible. It’s not surprising that it just unseated Words with Friends as the most popular game connected to Facebook. In just the past week, Draw Something gained nearly 9 million new players, and it seems destined to gain even more. That’s because it is one of the most intensely addictive mobile games I’ve ever played. It may be the apotheosis of social, mobile gaming—the best example yet of a nascent form of fun.

What makes Draw Something so hard to resist? First, there’s the interface, which is a model of minimalist efficiency. When you load it up for the first time, you’re asked to connect to your online social networking accounts—you can skip this step if you just want to play with random people—and that’s it. The game doesn’t require a tutorial, and doesn’t even post any rules. Indeed, there are almost no rules. Other competing mobile drawing games impose time limits on rounds, starkly warn you never to write out the clues, and use complex point systems. Here you just get into the game—pick an opponent, and either draw a given clue or guess the other guy’s drawing. If you guess someone else’s drawing, you both get points.

I suspect that Draw Something’s laxity on the rules contributes to its popularity. It should be obvious that you shouldn’t cheat by, say, writing “North ____” and “South ____” when you’re trying to draw Korea. If you do that in a game with me, I’m going to stop playing with you, cheater! But different people have different conventions. Indeed, drawing games are democratic—they appeal to non-native English speakers (Draw Something is really popular in Sweden and Norway) and young people (to judge by their Facebook profiles, a lot of my Draw Something competitors are teenagers). Given the wide variance in worldwide drawing and English vocabulary skills, it makes sense to keep the rules vague. If you don’t speak English very well—or if you haven’t yet learned about Korea in school—textual clues may be your only way to play.

Like Words with Friends, Draw Something is asynchronous: When I draw a shark and send it over to you, you can figure it out at your leisure. As a result, you’ll have many games going on simultaneously—I’m playing with about a dozen people right now, some of whom I know and most of whom are strangers. But Draw Something adds a simple feature that has the magical effect of shrinking the time and distance between people: When you’re guessing my drawing, you don’t just see what I drew—you see how I drew it, a near-real-time playback of all my starts, stops, and erasures.

For instance, take that shark. Because I can’t draw to save my life, I started out drawing something that looked more like the blob on the left. I deleted it, took another stab, deleted that, and then ended up with the picture on the right. It was painful to watch.

But in this pain comes pleasure. As I said, I’m terrible at drawing; Pictionary is my party-game nightmare. When I drew my first Draw Something picture, I was terrified. But as I played the game, I noticed something amazing—lots of people are terrible drawers, and it’s great fun to see just how terrible they are. You do notice some geniuses among the bunch—one person I was playing with drew an Old Masters-worthy still-life to get me to guess “juice.” It’s fun watching these great artists. But as the Huffington Post’s Jason Gilbert notes, there’s more communal hilarity—and less feeling bad about yourself—in being a bad Draw Something player than in being a good one.

Draw Something is available for smartphones and tablets, but playing on a tablet is a qualitatively different, better experience. The iPad’s big, responsive screen—and the new model’s high-definition “retina” display—make drawing much easier than on a phone. Indeed, if you’re a terrible drawer, I suggest you don’t even play if all you’ve got is a phone—I found the experience so frustrating that I had to quit.

Draw Something’s rise has earned its maker attention from the big guys in online gaming; there are reports that Zynga, the behemoth that makes Words With Friends, has been in talks to purchase the game’s creator, OMGPOP. The company has said that it was taken by surprise by the popularity of Draw Something and is scrambling to update the game with many features that users have requested, including a chat function and the ability to save and share your drawings. (My wife lost a treasured, inspired picture of Weird Al Yankovic—she was trying to draw “weird”—when the other player quit the game.)

I support these changes, but I hope the company doesn’t lard up the game with a lot of extra baubles. Draw Something is almost perfect as it is, and in its simplicity, it should serve as a model for other games. It marshals all the powerful technology we now have in our hands—mobile, touchscreen devices with powerful graphics, ubiquitous Internet connections, and globe-spanning social networks—into a sublime experience. If this is a model for entertainment in the post-PC era, we’re in for a good time.